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What is an Electric Catfish?

J.L. Drede
J.L. Drede

The electric catfish is the common name for the family of catfish known as Malapteruridae, which includes nearly 20 separate types of catfish. The term electric catfish is most often used when described a specific species of the animal, Malapterurus electricus, which is occasionally sold as a pet fish and seen in aquariums. It is found in the waters of tropical Africa.

Like its name suggests, it has the ability to create an electric charge that is used to both stun prey and elude predators. The electrical charge is generated by organs in the skin of the fish, and the fatty layers of flesh below the charge insulate the fish so it doesn't electrocute itself. Its body is one big electrical current, with the head serving as the negative pole and the tale the positive one.

An electric catfish can be found in the waters of tropical Africa.
An electric catfish can be found in the waters of tropical Africa.

The electric catfish can get quite large in the wild, up to 39 inches (99 cm) in length. It is usually beige and has sporadic black spotting across most of its body, which is without any scales or protective plates. During the day the fish is usually found deep in caves or other rocky formations. At night it will leave its shelter to eat, primarily existing on a diet of smaller fish and crustaceans.

The charge of an electric catfish cannot kill a human, so it is safe to keep as pets, although the shocks do sting. Its electric properties are enough to kill or wound just about any other aquarium fish though, so it cannot have any tank mates. Other special considerations must be made when keeping an electric catfish in an aquarium. Its only defensive trait is its electrical charge; the electric catfish has no protective scales or plates to protect its skin. An exposed heater or jagged rock in an aquarium could injure or even kill the fish. Special care must be exercised to ensure its living environment is a safe one. Like many other types of catfish, the electric cat prefers dark spaces, so plenty of rocks that provide ample cover should be provided. It will also dig its own shelter in the substrate, so any live plants might suffer as a result.

Aside from those issues, the electric catfish is a tough fish that can withstand most water conditions. The pH level can vary between 7.0 and 8.2 and the temperature can be between 73 and 86 degrees Fahrenheit (23 to 30 Celsius). It does need a large tank though. While captive electric catfish don't grow as large as the ones in the wild, it can easily reach 1 foot (30 cm) in length. A minimum 50 gallon (190 liter) tank is recommended. And don't try to create pairs for breeding; no one has ever successfully bred the species in captivity.

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    • An electric catfish can be found in the waters of tropical Africa.
      By: Ruslan Olinchuk
      An electric catfish can be found in the waters of tropical Africa.